Poets in Cowboy Hats

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
            That’s where the West begins…

                            Arthur Chapman 1912


Last week was National Cowboy Poetry week and I usually spend it at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival signing books.  The festival, was canceled this year, along with everything else.  But I sure did miss it.

I especially missed rubbing shoulders with people like Cheryl Rogers Barnet (daughter of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans), Jon Chandler (chosen Best Living Western Musician by True West Magazine) and cowboy poet, Waddie Mitchell.

This is me signing at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival.

It was at this festival that I first learned to appreciate cowboy poetry. I was never particularly fond of poetry, but this was different. This was storytelling like I’d never heard, and it really brought the west alive for me.

Cowboy poetry flourished after the Civil War. War songs were mixed with traditional ballads to create a unique style that painted vivid pictures of loneliness, loss of a horse, camaraderie and annoying coyotes.  

Cowboys recited these poems for each other around the campfire. No free form verse for these hard-driven men. Old time cowboy poetry always rhymed and was often put to song.

Much of it was done orally, which helped with memorization. Because the poetry was not written down, much was lost but not all. Fortunately, some of these gems were printed in newspapers and have since been published in books.

Legend has it that the reason poems were recited from memory was because cowboys were illiterate.

Not true, says writer David Stanley. In his book Cowboy Poetry Then and Now,” he argues that cowboys were anything but illiterate. “Many cowboys of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been well read, sometimes astonishingly so.”  He goes on to say that “Cowboy poetry has been primarily the province of literate people since the first publication of poems in western newspapers in the 1870s.”

To prove his point, Stanley tells us that “It wasn’t just original poetry that was enjoyed around the campfires. Cowboys also enjoyed “a mass of popular poetry from Shakespeare to Rudyard Kipling.”

There’s a famous saying that any poem a cowboy likes is a cowboy poem.  That may be true of Shakespeare, but for me, personally, nothing beats a poet in a cowboy hat.

What’s your favorite western storytelling medium: movie, TV, books, music or poetry?




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40 thoughts on “Poets in Cowboy Hats”

    • Good morning! I’d never really stopped to think about whether cowboys had a good education or not. I’m sorry but I’ve never been a fan of poetry because I never got the meaning out of it that I was supposed to. Of course, this opinion stems from my high school and college experiences with poetry so maybe I should give it another shot someday. If I had to put it all in a list of from favorite to least favorite I’d have to go music, books, tv series, movies and then poems. TV outranks movies because of all the series there were when I was a child and I even watched them some with my mother in resent years. I’m not sure I would even get poems these days though. I guess that makes me too literal of a person. Lol Stay safe as things begin to reopen. I myself am very apprehensive about it being too soon. We are just now having daily positive cases in my county. I’m hoping most mayors will over governors if they see opening up isn’t in the best interest of their towns.

  1. I once did a presentation at a tractor show. Big deal in Nebraska. Husker Harvest Days it’s called.
    And I followed a cowboy poet who PACKED THAT PLACE. It was a massive tent with seating for 300 and there was standing room only.
    Oh my gosh, such a tough act to follow. He was hilarious. I told My Cowboy later I followed some cowboy poet called R. P. Smith and he’s all “YOU MET R.P.SMITH???????????? I LOVE HIM. HE’S GOT A RADIO SHOW.”
    So fan, my cowboy poet knowledge is lacking. https://www.rpsmith.us/
    Fortunately I was spared any cruel comparisons because most everybody left.
    Lucky me.

  2. I love books, but I’d have to pick music as my favorite cowboy poetry medium. Red Steagall’s music comes to mind. I have worn out 2 tapes of his music. Little Joe The Wrangler, Freckles Brown, and many many more.
    He also was who discovered Reba McIntire when she sang the National Anthem at the National Finals Rodeo.
    Thanks for an amazing blog.

  3. I’m sorry to hear the event got canceled. It sure will be nice when we are able to get back to our usual routines. My favorite way for western storytelling would be through movies or books.

  4. So many things cancelled this year – it is so sad. I love story telling however I can get it

  5. There is nothing like the westerns I grew up with. But, I thoroughly enjoy a historical western book that describes the environment, horses, people, rebel rousers, sheriffs, saloons, wagon trains, etc. Oh, and romance, how I enjoy that too. Have enjoyed learned about cowboy poets today. So interesting. Thank you for sharing the pictures too.

    • Hi Kathy,
      I grew up with westerns, too, and I sure do miss them. I just read somewhere that there were more than a 100 western series on TV during the 50s and 60s. That truly was the golden age.

  6. Books and movies tell the best stories but country singer Marty Robins was great at story telling.

  7. Welcome. It makes sense that cowboys as a general, were literate. They would read to kill time. At least this is what my great grandpa has said.
    I love cowboys in books and movies.

    • Hi Lori, your great grandpa told you right. Dime novels were popular during the civil war and kept cowboys occupied on the trail. Now we know that Shakespeare did, too. Hope you’re enjoying some western tales during lock down.

    • Hi Vicki, you’re my kind of person. Books are my favorite, too. Thank goodness for Amazon. With the stores closed, I’d be climbing the walls if I didn’t have a way to buy books!

  8. Love them all. Our small town (pop. 1800) had a western art show for several years and had cowboy poets for additional entertainment. One year Waddie Mitchell was the featured performer. So glad we got to see him in person.

    • Hi Caryl, I was lucky to meet Louis L’Amour when he spoke at the Santa Barbara college. I was an inspiring author at the time and found myself in the food line right behind him. I’ll always be grateful to him for his his kindness and encouragement.

  9. Books are my favorite. I’ve always been an avid reader, though. One of the members of the church I grew up in was an elderly gentleman who was a cowboy poet. We had an annual fall talent show and fellowship dinner every fall, and he would recite poems each year. I loved his recitations. Sweet, sweet memories.

  10. I prefer books and song. The old cowboy groups like Sons Of The Pioneers brought the cowboy soul to life. When we lived in Colorado Springs, CO, there was a group at a local ranch that did “chuck wagon” dinners. Touristy, but the group, The Flying W Wranglers, have been performing at their dinner shows since they started in 1953. Obviously, the group’s members have changed over the years. They told cowboy stories, some poetry, and traditional cowboy music. We try to go whenever we are back in the area, but the entire ranch burned in the Waldo Canyon fire back in 2012. They rebuilt and were supposed to reopen this May. I don’t know if they will make it, but we will go next time we are out West. They are very much like the Sons Of The Pioneers which were always a favorite of mine. I can replay their mucic when I want and reread the books when I need a western fix.

  11. After my first magical trip to visit an old friend who had moved to Wyoming, she sent me an antique postcard she’d found in a shop with a poem on it. It ended with,
    It’s lonesome and it’s desolate,
    It’s off the beaten path.
    But once you’ve caught the lure of it,
    You’re homesick ‘til you’re back…in Wyoming!

    That was so true for me! I love western stories in all forms!

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